Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Yellowstone National Park on August 13, 2021. Photo credit: NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Indigenous survival, history and culture are prominent themes for National Native American Heritage Month

Acknowledging First Nationsand Native Americans’ significance in U.S. history as part of racial reckoning.

The killing of George Floyd last year by a white Minnesota policeman prompted many Americans to reassess the stories told to us as children about the nation’s “heroes.” Part of their reevaluation included  taking a fresh look at Christopher Columbus “discovering” what is now called America. Thousands of years before his ships docked here by mistake, indigenous people lived on the land. 

For months after Floyd’s death, demonstrators knocked down statues honoring Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve enslavement. They also dismounted Columbus effigies or demonstrated for them to be removed. They asserted that the statues glorified people who were racist, and colonizers who stole Native American land.

Last year, the cacike or chief of the Higuayagua Taíno nation which populated the island of current-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, described his reaction to the dismantling of Columbus statues. “It’s almost like a weight off my chest because it’s like a validation,” said Jorge Baracueti Estevez in a CBS News interview.

Currently a Smithsonian Museum curator, Estevez said he had never seen a statue of Columbus. During the first time he saw one, Estevez recalled the accounts he had heard about Columbus and his men wiping out indigenous people, including the Taíno. He said it was as if the statue was saying to him, “ ‘This is me, I’m the one who did it. And I get a statue.’”

Instead, protestors called for the country to pay a more significant tribute to Native Americans. In turn, several states switched out Columbus Day to launch Indigenous People’s Day observances, or celebrate both on the second Monday in October.

| Watch: We fought back: Dr. Eileen DeFreece on Native Nations and the Lenni Lenape of New York and New Jersey

Hip Hop artist Maimouna Youssef, who also goes by Mumu Fresh, performs at Weslyan Univeristy’s Planet Hip Hop Festival Concert 2014. Youssef is Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and African American heritage. Photo credit: Weslyan University Center for the Arts

Now that it is November, this time of the year marks a month-long homage to Native Americans. Since 1915, Native Americans have been calling for a day or a month in November honoring the contributions of First Americans to U.S. history and culture. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution declaring November 1990 as National American Indian Heritage Month.

“Today Americans of all ages recognize the many outstanding achievements of this country’s original inhabitants and their descendants,” the resolution reads in part. It cites Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who assisted Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and Charles Curtis, a man of Native American descent, who served in Congress, and later as the first Vice President of color. “However, such celebrated examples constitute only a small portion of the rich, centuries-old heritage of [Native Americans].”

Already, Native Americans held their own events and celebrations of their achievements before 1990. The observance is an opportunity to study and appreciate all Native nations, and their rich, inspiring culture. The theme for this year’s Native American Heritage Month is “Resilient and Enduring: We Are Native People.”

Just before this year’s heritage month began, President Biden signed a proclamation noting Native American contributions to the U.S. One of them, he said, was their involvement in military service. During World Wars I and II, Native American “code talkers”  transmitted sensitive information to U.S. military officers by using their indigenous languages. Because enemy soldiers could not understand the words which were little known outside of the Native American nation, they were unable to translate secret codes successfully. As a result, their skills proved to be critical in winning.

| Read: Take down of Christopher Columbus statues shows shift in more accurate, inclusive American history

“For over 200 years, Native Americans have defended our country during every major conflict and continue to serve at a higher rate than every other ethnic group in the nation,” the proclamation read. Through the framework of Biden’s Build Back Better initiative and his Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, Biden wrote that Native Americans are being encouraged to participate in efforts to reduce global warming by assisting in maintaining  clean water and developing alternative clean energy sources.

For years, Native Americans have been at the forefront of protests against oil pipelines built through their land and their impact on food and clean water. They say the latest proposed project, the Canadian L3, would poison the land and water they depend on to live. Opponents of L3 have said oil spills and tar sands could not only pollute the wetlands through which it would be built, it would ruin the wild rice cultivated in “numerous watersheds” by the Anishinaabe nations.

A tortured history

Although Native Americans initially welcomed pilgrims and other European settlers in friendship and peace, the immigrants and religious refugees had their eyes on Native American land. Treaties between the Native American tribes and the U.S. spelled out how the size of the lands by each tribe was determined.

Over time, the amount of land Native Americans could retain under the U.S. government shrank drastically. Many of the treaties were broken as more white settlers snatched land from Native groups. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Native nations  were  forced from their land, and given smaller plots as “compensation” for what was taken. 

In 1838, the last people of the Cherokee nation who refused to leave  their ancestral territory located in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, were rounded up by 7,000 armed U.S. troops then forcibly marched to their new home in present-day Oklahoma. Many died along the way. The journey came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.”

As expressed in this year’s National Native American Heritage Month theme, indigenous people have been “resilient and enduring” despite economic and racial disparities confronting them. Currently, there are only 5.2 million Native Americans in the U.S. Alaska Natives are included in that figure. Prior to European settlement, millions more Native nations and peoples existed, but were either exterminated through multiple waves of genocide or became invisible peoples as a result of slavery and indentured servitude.

Native efforts to survive have been long documented. Before 1492 when Columbus “discovered” America, there were 60 million indigenous people living on this continent. They died from battles with white settlers and adventurers over land and natural resources within the land, such as oil and gold. Also, they died from exposure to diseases settlers brought with them such as Smallpox, the flu, and measles. 

| Read: Unearthing of unmarked Native graves points to the Catholic Church’s roles in Indigenous genocide

Black Foot, Standing Bear, Big Eagle, Sioux. Three members of the Sioux tribe pose in Indian Village, 1898. Photo credit: Boston Public Library

The deaths of so many Natives peoples caused a slight change in climate. Alexander Koch, the lead author of the University College London study, told Business Insider that when the indigenous people were forced off their land and the population diminished, there was no one left to protect and preserve the land. Newer trees and flora trapped a lot of carbon dioxide in the soil. So much greenhouse gas was removed from the atmosphere that the Earth’s temperature dropped by 0.15 degrees Celsius. “Humans altered the climate already before the burning of fossil fuels had started,” Koch explained. “Fossil fuel burning then turned up the dial.”

Today, data show gross disparity in wealth. The Administration for Native Americans in the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services, indicates that indigenous people in the U.S. are struggling economically. Native Americans’ and Alaska Natives’ median household income is $35,310, compared to $51,371 for the U.S. as a whole.  For  both groups living on reservations, the poverty rate is 29.4 percent compared to the U.S. national average of 15.3 percent. 

“My administration is committed to advancing equity and opportunity for all [Native Americans] and Alaska Natives and to helping Tribal nations overcome the challenges that they have faced from the pandemic, climate change, and lack of sufficient infrastructure in a way that reflects their unique political relationship,” Biden wrote in the Native American Heritage Month resolution.

 Native American elected officials

This year’s observance highlights the progress Native Americans are making in politics.  More than 100 Native Americans ran for public office last year. Seventy-two won their elections, while six were voted into the U.S House of Representatives last November. Sixty-seven candidates were women. One of the notable winners was Sharice Davis (D-Kansas) who defeated her Republican opponent, making Davis the only Democrat in the House from Kansas. Hawaiian Democrat Kaiali’i Kahele’s win made  him the second Hawaiian to be elected to Congress. 

Native Americans on the other side of the aisle retained their House seats. Two Republicans from Oklahoma, Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin won reelection. Representatives Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Yvette Herrell (R-New Mexico) also won reelection. 

Haaland wasn’t in her House seat for long when Biden appointed her as his Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American selected for the post.

“I stand on the shoulders of people who came before me, the Native leaders who have given voice to the issues of their people through the centuries,” said Haaland in a “PBS Newshour” interview earlier this year. “I am confident [because] these people made a path for me.”

Secretary Haaland speaks with Groundwork USA corps members on her visit to Yellowstone National Park, August 13, 2021. Photo credit: NPS/ Jacob W. Frank

An unhappy Thanksgiving

There are Native Americans who observe Thanksgiving with family and friends over a special meal. But other Native Americans consider it a national day of mourning over the theft of their land and resources, and the killings of their ancestors by settlers driven by greed and racism.

On November 27, 1970, Wamsutta Frank James of the Wampanoag  nation, and his friends and supporters, gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts to remember their shared history of loss. Frank James had been asked to deliver a Thanksgiving speech at a local banquet, but his speech was dropped as it emphasized Native American suffering and discrimination.

Kisha James, Frank James’ granddaughter, told WBUR-FM’s “Here and Now” program that she wasn’t opposed to families getting together for food and fellowship, but she hoped families would stop embracing the myths associated with the holiday.

“We’re essentially extending our hand to these people and saying, here’s the truth,” said James. “If you want to learn the truth and accept the truth, come with us.  And unfortunately, some people don’t want to take our hand because they’re committed to dying on the wrong side of history.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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